Try this little experiment sometime. Go to a movie rental kiosk from Redbox or Blockbuster Express – or browse through one online – and count the number of films that have a gun depicted on the cover. You may be astonished by the results. I recently counted 26 out of a stock of about 150 movies. (There were also a number of other phallic implements of mayhem, such as swords.) Over and over we see the various incarnations of James Bond, Dirty Harry, Wyatt Earp and Luke Skywalker reminding us that guns are cool, efficient and oh so sexy. I enjoy a well-done action flick as well as the next guy, and I don’t mind cinematic violence when it serves the story, but isn’t this–well, overkill?
Hollywood has a well-deserved reputation for being “liberal”, and yet it repeatedly indulges in cheerleading for the ultra-right wing gun lobby with its facile presentations of firearms as the first solution rather than the last. There is disagreement among experts (no, that category does not include the NRA) about the impact this has on the public in terms of encouraging violence. But it’s hard to imagine that it could be constructive. It’s unlikely that movie violence in general prompts its viewers to be more violent, and even the glorification of guns in particular might not be especially detrimental. But perhaps the real question is whether it has a significant effect in combination with other elements, such as the ready availability of weapons, ideological extremism, and a general cultural tendency toward confrontation, paranoia and irrational rage.
The gun culture would have us believe that cooler heads will prevail no matter how much hardware is in circulation. But there is often a huge difference between what people say they will do and what they actually do in the heat of crisis. Furthermore, even if we assume that every card-carrying member of the NRA will only use his or her toys in a responsible manner (a tall assumption), it’s staggeringly naive to believe that such a responsible attitude will extend to all gun owners- and the naivete increases as the number of owners increases. We have the ample example of history to remind us how deadly things get when lead is substituted for brains.
Hollywood is in many respects inaccurate in its portrayals of the “Wild West”, but one thing it gets right is that people lived – and all too often died – by their guns. With few legal restraints, almost everyone had one (or more) and many used one at every opportunity. It was not unheard of for someone to be shot, for instance, in his sleep for snoring too loudly.
In even more recent days, my grandfather spent several months in jail as a young man after fatally shooting another fellow at a dance. He was eventually released when the court ruled it was self-defense. But what a senseless tragedy for him, the man he killed, and everyone who knew either of them. Had you asked him about it, he probably would have told you that killing someone, even in self defense, isn’t nearly as glorious as Hollywood and the gun culture would have you believe. But this was far from an isolated incident. It was a time when people brought guns to dances because that’s just what people did. And it’s a time that the NRA is trying to take us back to.
What is to be done about Hollywood’s love affair with the Uzi and the Luger? Probably nothing. On a personal level, I tend to avoid renting any of those 26 movies, though it’s not because I’m trying to make a statement. It’s just that I’ve found that a gun on the cover is generally a tip-off that the film inside isn’t worth my time, because it’s probably a formulaic paean to the simpleminded ideology of violence as a virtue. (There are numerous exceptions to this guideline, of course.) But I don’t expect this to make any difference to Hollywood, and I doubt it would make much difference if a lot of people did it. The Twenty-First Century American zeitgeist holds guns to be cool, efficient and oh so sexy. And therefore they’re highly profitable.